According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, transracial or transcultural adoption means placing a child who is of one race or ethnic group with adoptive parents of another race or ethnic group. Entering into the adoption community myself, I admit that even my opinion of transracial and transcultural adoption has changed over the years. Transracial and transcultural adoption has evolved over the years in the area of public policy and public opinion. Due to the testimonies of adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, and social workers over the years, reform was created on behalf of adoptees. This resulted in information that was released to create a healthier environment for adoptees. When adopting our son from South Africa, my husband and I used much soul searching when adopting a child. While both of his parents match his skin tone, we are born American and our son was born in South Africa. How were we, as African Americans, going to help our son preserve his South African culture? The answers to this question was in the advice that Alexis Oberdorfer adds to her article for prospective adoptive families and adoption professionals on behalf of adoptees of transracial and transcultural adoption.

The Author and Her Adoption Connection

Alexis Oberdorfer, MSW, is a social worker who oversees the adoption programs for Children’s Home Society and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. Ms. Oberdorfer has worked in the private and non-profit sector and accorse the public welfare continuum for 25 years. She’s received countless awards from her work in the adoption community and serves on the Board of the National Council For Adoption and the Advisory Board of the Permanency and Adoption Competency Certificate at the University of Minnesota. She is an adoptee in a transracial adoption and the adoptive parent in a transcultural adoption. In the article, “Adoption Advocate” from the National Council for Adoption, Oberdorfer uses history and her personal experiences to share the evolution of transracial and transcultural adoption

Historical Facts of Adoption

In 1874, Harriet Tubman and her husband adopted a child named Gertie. This was one of the earliest examples of same-race adoption. It wasn’t until 1948 that Oberdofer stated that white parents in Minnesota adopted a black child and were the first recorded transracial adoption. Oberdorfer continues on to share that Pearl S. Buck began an agency specifically placing children through transracial and/or intercountry adoptive placement. Buck introduced the many people in the United States to the concept of transracial adoption. 

With a change in the nation’s Civil Rights Movement, there was growth in interracial adoptions. However, in 1972, this resulted in the National Association for Black Social Workers to oppose the placement of black children in white homes for any reason. Growing up in a community that was predominantly African American, I can understand why the National Association for Black Social Workers opposed transracial adoption. In the African American community, the perseverance of culture is highly valued. There is this sense of history within the community that seeks to be maintained in the adoptive home. This sets the tone for the awareness of maintaining culture for the adoptee. While many people think love is enough, I’ve learned through my experience as a mom and as a teacher that loving the child enough to study and immerse into his or her culture is enough. I applied this concept in my own transcultural adoption.  

Oberdorfer continues to mention the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) written in 1994 that was enacted to “decrease the length of time that children wait to be adopted; to prevent discriminiation in the placement of children on the basis of race, color, or national origin; and to facilitate the identification and recruitment of foster and adoptive parents who can meet the children’s needs”. 

Oberorfer continues on to add that in 1996, the Interethnic Placement Act (IEPA) “takes away any consideration of the use of race, color or national origin when making placement decisions, unless it can be demonstrated that a same race placement is clearly in that child’s best interest.”  More importantly, the IEPA imposes financial penalties on states that violate the IEPA by using race, color, or national origin in making placement decisions. This is something that I appreciate personally because it removes discriminiation in adoption. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been discriminated against based on the stigma behind being African American and not having the trust of the agency to meet their standards in our home study. Thankfully, this was something that was brought to attention and the situation was solved. I shudder to think if there was no IEPA, then I would not have had the opportunity to adopt our son. My story is not the only one. I’ve spoken to a few African American families that had the same situation. I believe that laws like these push adoption education to evolve and help bring change in hearts and minds. I’m hopeful that as more adoptees like Ms. Oberorfer speak out and continue to document their experiences, they will bring about more change in the adoption community for people who are more aware and thoughtful when it comes to making the decision to adopt.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Growing Up in a Transracial Family

Oberorfer writes about her background of growing up in a transracial family before the National Black Social Workers took a stand against transracial adoption, thus before 1972. She was adopted in Chicago and moved to Minnesota. This greatly influenced her upbringing and culture. She was raised in a community that lacked racial diversity, but she was accepted in the immediate neighborhood. She was able to visit her friends and her friends could visit at home. When she was in preschool, she could recognize racial differences. As a preschool teacher, I’ve seen my students recognize differences in races and skin color as well. Ms. Oberorfer shares that she wanted her hair to be long and blond. I remember having a African American student who walked in one day and desired for her hair to be long, black and flowing like the hispanic student instead of her type of hair, which was coarse. When she described “wearing a towel on her head as I imagined what it would be like to have long straight hair”, I thought of myself. After getting my hair washed, I would pretend that the water magically made my hair straight and then wear a towel on my head. 

As Oberorfer went to elementary school, she began to not fit in because of race. Her hair was different and her skin color was different. She gives a lot of attention to her hair care because to her, she feels that it is a big deal in adopting transracially.  She explains that “Hair Care is a bellwether for positive self esteem.”  She doesn’t make it an issue with standing out in the black community, but further standing out with her peers. Her hair was short and she wanted braids and twists (typical styles that would complement the texture of her hair). She goes on to explain that she had to go on a “journey for herself to figure out how to care for her hair and understand her body type and self-image as she grew older.” She didn’t feel that her parents were equipped to help her and the resources that are available for transracial adoptees today. When I look at what she describes as her experience as a transracial adoptee and the experience of transracial adoptees today, I find that there are many differences in awareness and education to parents. 

Photo by Subhash Nusetti on Unsplash

Raising a Transcultural Family

Oberdorfer’s experience as an adoptee affects experience as an adoptive mother. She adopted black children from another country. She knew that from her experience that she would need to “step up [her] parenting knowledge to meet her children’s needs.” She made sure that she was educated about the products that her daughter would need from day one. She carved out time to learn and practice with her daughter’s hair and learned how to treat her son’s hair. She goes on to explain that while her children are the same race they still “feel it is important that [her] children have books, toys, dolls, crayons, playmates, movies, etc., that reflects them.” She goes on to describe that she brings art, a map of their country, and things that would give them a “sense of identity and pride.”

I can relate to Oberorfer with being the adoptive mother in a transcultural adoption. Our son was adopted from South Africa. The day we picked up our son he had many qualities that we did not necessarily have in our home. He played soccer; we watched football and basketball. He spoke some words in Zulu; we spoke English. He was born in Soweto, a place of a rich South African history; I was born in Baltimore, Maryland and my husband was born in Oxford, North Carolina. This adoption changed the culture of our home. My husband and I studied aparteid and we studied the history of South Africa. We studied Soweto and even researched the hospital where our son was born. We joined meetup groups with other South African enthusiasts and made friends with other black Africans. We made sure he was in schools where the African (not just Black) children could be represented. He goes to schools with children who have African names like him and a background and culture like him. We celebrate holidays that are exclusive to South Africa, listen to South African music, and, finally, just like we receive the New York Times and The Washington Post, we also receive Time Live to share about what is happening in South Africa.  

I love that Oberorfer invites her children to critique how they were raised. As tough as I believe the critique will be, I wish that my son would do that with me and my husband as well. I believe that it would not only help him express himself, but help us help other adoptive parents in their adoption journey. Also, we share the same wish of wanting and hoping that our children will have “pride in their racial and cultural identity, and appreciate both their country of birth and their country of residence, as well as the diverse cultures that helped shape them.”

Questions for Potential Adoptive Families and Adoption Professionals

Oberorfer brings it home by challenging potential adoptive families who want to adopt transracially or transculturally. She challenges them with questions that they should ask themselves. I believe these questions are so key to having the parents think very thoughtfully when wanting to adopt their child. When my social workers were advising us on what will happen to our son once we brought him home, we answered the questions against the wishes of the social workers and it lasted only a few months with our son. It was once we actually thought of the questions they asked us that were similar to the ones read in the article and changed his environment to meet the answers, it helped our son grow and develop so much better. For example, we were in environments where we were one of the few minorities. Our son was the only minority at his school and the only minority in his Children’s Church. Thus, we changed churches and his school. Currently, he is in a school and church with other children who are immigrants. There are some children that are African, Hispanic and Asian. I notice that he has less anxiety and he feels more comfortable with speaking and sharing his thoughts. I highly recommend that potential adoptive families look at the questions that are listed and sit down and answer these questions and discuss them with their adoption professional. Speaking of adoption professionals, she has questions for them as well. Again, these are questions that would better help them match and help the professionals meet the needs of the adoptees.

Oberdorfer ends the article by stating that “families need to be willing to actively seek resources to understand how to prepare and support children to become adolescents and adults who are prepared to participate in the community as a person of color.” I believe that she is able to clearly make this statement because of her experience as a transracial adoptee and an adoptive mother herself. It is my hope that Ms. Oberdorfer will continue to speak out on behalf of adoptees, thus furthering the evolution of adoption education.

Considering adoption? Let us help you on your journey to creating your forever family. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.